New Internationalist

Walking our Talk

Issue 360

Imbalances in power relations are everywhere, including within those groups working to change such imbalances. Peace trainer George Lakey recounts workshops he has conducted with activist groups, uncovering their internal power dynamics - and transforming them.

To build movements that can transform society – including its power relations – requires transformational work in the training. We work with movements whose activists are at very high risk of injury and death from police and security forces. The very minimal emotional risk we see in doing transformational work is worth taking when seen in the context of what social movements around the world do every day. The transformational opening, as we see it, is to go beneath the surface of talk going on in a workshop. The goal? Empowerment. We do transformational work only when the group has grown cohesive enough to support it, and when we sense a strong motivation for breaking through limits to activist effectiveness.

The charismatic leader

Charismatic leadership has made enormous contributions to social change and even egalitarians often have heroes like Aung Sang Suu Kyi and Martin Luther King. The downside of dependence on such leaders is, however, obvious. Sometimes skill-building activist workshops can address the leadership issue, if the facilitator is alert and waits patiently for what we call ‘the teachable moment’.

In Asia a charismatic religious figure was leading a campaign to save the regional rainforests; his style of leadership was to think things out and call the shots. One practical difficulty with his style was that the movement was heavily dependent on him and he was at that time at risk of imprisonment or assassination. I went into the forest to facilitate a campaign strategy workshop for him and his group.

The teachable moment came a couple of days into the workshop when one villager, reporting for his small discussion group, acknowledged that his report was scanty. He accounted for the poor quality of the report by saying: ‘I’ve never thought for myself – I’ve only done what the leader tells me to.’ To me, it was as if a bell rang and I thought I saw reverberations in the group as well. So I asked a series of questions to help them think about the possible benefits of shared strategic thinking. It was delicate work because leader/follower balances can be heavily charged.

The group came to the view that it would like to participate in strategic thinking with the leader, and the leader said he could see the value of that, I challenged the group to show with their bodies their new commitment by sitting close to the leader (who habitually had deference space around his person). They did, half expecting lightning to strike – and I fully expected lightning to strike because I was taking such a risk in cultural dynamics.

Once they’d done the moving around, the relaxation of tension was palpable. Smiles started to appear. About the new arrangement the leader said, poignantly: ‘I don’t feel so alone.’

A new relationship had emerged which enabled the leader to ask the question which had been tacitly hanging over everyone’s heads for the entire workshop: ‘What will this movement do if I am jailed or killed?’ The group had by then grown to the point that it could start to answer that question.

The invisible woman

It was Sunday morning in a weekend workshop in the US. Only a short way into the part of the workshop we call Open Sharing, an Asian American woman began to speak about her experience of invisibility in the workshop session the previous evening. It had reminded her vividly of the invisibility which is characteristic of the oppression of Asian Americans in the larger society. I encouraged her to express herself as strongly as she felt, and she did so, with tears and storming. Aware that the listeners might shut down from guilt, I assisted the group to make connections not only to their own pain but also to the dynamics they are likely to encounter in doing social-change work. It turned out, in debriefing, that others in the group remembered ‘losing their voices’ at times in their lives and found inspiration in watching someone stand up for herself so powerfully. The impromptu ‘speak-out’ was not only transformational for the Asian American woman but became a vivid metaphor to anchor the remaining work of the workshop.

Gandhi expected truth to be uncovered through action. He expected truth to unfold in the interactive process, including the process of confrontation.

My colleagues and I are constantly inventing training tools which will bring the group’s issues to the surface. We can’t know ahead of time precisely what will emerge, but we know it will include perceptions of truth. Then it’s our job as facilitators to assist the group to take its next step on the journey, knowing that enormous resources are present within people in the circle.

What reassures us is that this approach to training works with rural villagers in Thailand and anarchists in London, Russian graduate students and African National Congress cadres, US coal miners and Cambodian monks. Perhaps it travels so well across lines of culture and class because the design is based on a simple imperative: respect.

George Lakey is Director of Training for Change, a nongovernmental centre based in a Philadelphia neighbourhood. Since 1992 TfC trainers have travelled to 14 countries on more than 50 training trips and led 500 workshops for over 10,000 activists. TfC's pedagogy builds on the work of Paolo Freire and other popular educators.

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